Confronting the Costs

The Montana Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council (GBAC) met last week for the third in a series of meetings focused around special areas of interest in grizzly management. This conversation centered around the complex duality of compensation and prevention when it comes to managing livestock-grizzly interactions on public and private lands across the state.

In an earlier Bear Tracks article, “The Truth about Grizzlies and Livestock” we explored this topic in detail, urging GBAC members to prioritize discussion of collaborative coexistence efforts during the meeting, including education and other preventative mitigation techniques. We also asked that the council acknowledge the amount of money being spent to fund livestock loss compensation programs for ranchers that could instead be going into supporting cheaper, more ethical, and resilient coexistence efforts. 

The council heard from three professionals in the field of livestock-grizzly management, including George Edwards who heads Montana’s Livestock Loss program, Seth Wilson, Executive Director of the Blackfoot Challenge and Chair of the Livestock Loss Board, and Kraig Glazier, Western District Supervisor and livestock loss investigative specialist for wildlife services.

Compensation vs. prevention bias 

While we appreciated the representation of perspectives when it comes to compensation and prevention efficacy through GBAC’s choice of speakers, the council neglected to give equal air time to prevention as a long-term management tool, instead maintaining its focus on the status quo – supporting the livestock industry through compensation payouts above all else. 

According to Glazier, when it comes to livestock-grizzly interactions, Wildlife Services’ “main goal is to keep livestock owners in business.” Being prescriptive in how agencies support livestock owners (like requiring ranchers to practice any sort of prevention efforts) would penalize the industry unnecessarily and lead to increased animosity towards both the agencies and the wildlife in question, added Edwards. 

Edwards further underscored this point by noting that the “most common response from ranchers about prevention measures such as electric fencing is that they either can’t afford the cost of installation or that electric fences ruin neighbor relations by concentrating predators on another’s property instead.” Edwards did concede that electric fences work in keeping bears out of unwanted areas. 

The wolf sport hunt model: another suggestive plug in support of a grizzly trophy hunt? 

The council narrowly skirted the topic of grizzly trophy hunting already discussed at an earlier GBAC meeting, getting hung up on comparative stats that livestock depredation by wolves decreased, according to Glazier, when a sport hunting season was legalized for the species in 2009, thereby “stabilizing” livestock losses. This decline in livestock loss due to wolf predation is celebrated as a success by many ranchers and wildlife agencies. Glazier put numbers to this, noting that confirmed and probable wolf predation cases across the state were around 200 a year prior to 2009. Since Montana instituted the wolf sport hunt, that number has dropped nearly 50% to around 100 a year. 

This trend was compared to what Glazier called a “dramatic increase in livestock depredation by grizzlies in the past several years.” According to Glazier, in 2013 wildlife services responded to an average of 26 grizzly predation investigations each year. That number, he says, is now up to an average of 157 investigations annually as grizzlies expand their range. 

Edwards was again quick to add that compensation payouts due to grizzly predation are now nearly double that of wolves. In 2019, said Edwards, compensation payouts for wolves was $83,531, while grizzly payouts last year totaled $143,466. 

While there is correlation between these numbers (fewer confirmed wolf predations = less wolf compensation; more confirmed grizzly predations = more grizzly compensation), the council should remain wary of applying the wolf-livestock model as a replicable argument for instituting a grizzly trophy hunt. As Ken McDonald with Fish, Wildlife & Parks reminded us at the grizzly hunt GBAC meeting, “One thing the council needs to keep in mind is that hunting wouldn’t likely reduce conflict.” 

In other words, even if a trophy hunt moves forward in Montana, ranchers will still likely be requesting hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. Proactively funding coexistence efforts could slash that number. Trophy hunting grizzlies will not.

Prevention efforts offer a non-lethal alternative

Seth Wilson’s presentation on prevention strategies offered an alternative to the tailspin narrative of growing numbers of grizzly predations and an associated spike in livestock loss with increasing compensatory payouts each year. As Executive Director of the Blackfoot Challenge, a cooperative conservation organization in western Montana, Wilson has been working in the prevention arena for over 20 years. Strong partnerships strengthen the effectiveness and sustainability of the Challenge’s coexistence work, enabling a robust and proactive set of prevention programs to help mitigate human-bear conflict, including electric fencing, sanitation, carcass removal, range riders, human safety programs, and extensive outreach and education efforts.

“These prevention programs help maintain low levels of human-bear conflict. Over the last 8 years,” stated Wilson, “an average of 2.2 grizzly bears are killed each year due to grizzly-livestock conflicts.” Since 2003, the Challenge has reduced conflicts in the Blackfoot watershed by 93 percent.

This decline in human-caused grizzly mortality in western Montana is impressive, to say the least, reminding us that there are ethical ways to manage livestock and grizzlies that allow both the industry and the wildlife to thrive on home ground. GBAC did not spend adequate time discussing prevention as a viable and non-lethal tool for conflict reduction. 

Everyone agrees: funding is critical

When it comes to either strategy, one thing the council did agree on is that funding is a main hurdle for successful implementation of any grizzly management or loss mitigation program.

According to Edwards, the current amount of $300,000 appropriated annually to the livestock loss board can only be used for confirmed compensation claims in the year that money is allocated. Unused funds can be rolled over year to year and only then applied to prevention efforts. Edwards was quick to remind the council that every year the number of depredation claims is going up, underscoring his point that rollovers are unlikely and that more funding will be a necessity in order to continue paying ranchers for their losses in the future. 

Wilson estimated that the Blackfoot Challenge spends around $75,000 a year on prevention programs, and “could easily double that,” noting that a “trust fund could provide a robust funding mechanism to scale up the work.” 

These numbers offer important reminders that the costs of managing, and mitigating, problematic human-wildlife interactions are real. The question remains: how should the council – and the public – weigh the trade-off over time between the initial cost of a long-term preventative strategy such as building an electric fence against rancher requests for immediate financial compensation of livestock loss? 

Collaboration is key

Collaborative prevention management programs like those stewarded by the Blackfoot Challenge or the Tom Miner Basin Association have an impressive, and lasting, track record of success for mitigating human-grizzly conflict in localized regions across the state. These collaboratives demonstrate that there is potential to find good solutions to bear management that enable humans and wildlife to coexist. 

Scaling-up prevention programs statewide will require not only funding, but partnerships, resources and collective will on the part of all individuals, landowners, producers, agencies, and politicians that call the Rocky Mountain Front home. Successful and lasting efforts will need to link up with local agencies already doing on the ground work in their watershed. “Building, maintaining, monitoring – all of these efforts over time take dollars,” reminded Wilson. “Like anything, these kinds of programs need nurturing and feeding to launch.”